REVIEW: Julia London’s THE BRIDESMAID, or “Fickle Fortune … Thou Wilt Not Keep Him Long”

The BridesmaidAn assumption accompanies a reader cracking open a romance novel: fate brings our hero and heroine together; caprice, human and/or otherwise, pulls them apart … will steers them back to each other.  Now Miss Bates is a strictly free-will kind of gal and, even though she hails from an indolently fate-believing culture, she likes to cling to free will as the determinant of human lives.  Certainly the romance novel takes this fate into account to our, its faithful readers, satisfaction: think of all the meet-cutes you’ve read, the tumblings into a room, the snow/rain/ice storms that strand strangers, sojourners, lovers or enemies, the circumstances that bring about marriages-of-convenience, the random doors that open onto the rest of a life (Miss Bates’s favourite being the opening scene of Sarah Morgan’s The Twelve Nights of Christmas) that bring our hero and heroine together.  We swallow it hook-link-and-sinker, this benevolent force ensuring that kindred spirits (think “carrots” and a boy named Gilbert) meet and mate.  However, for an HEA to be complete and satisfactory, the spirits must recognize the kindred in each other and, in an act or acts of transformation and will actively seek and request of the other to join them on life’s journey. 

For a bitty novella, Julia London’s The Bridesmaid serves up questions of fate and will and their role in the romance novel and does so with humour and delightful characters in an engaging plot that echoes what we love about romantic comedy.  In this modest, in length not scope, novella, London writes a romance and reflects on the genre; it’s not pedantic or self-conscious, but sheer fun.  Truth be told, however, there are things that may grate on some readers’ nerves/sensibilities, but Miss Bates is forgiving when a writer tickles both her funny and intellectual bones.          

Miss Bates loved the last London romance she read and reviewedHer expectations high … except for a few bumps in the writing and the possibility of disturbing some readers’ sensibilities (more of that later), London rose to the occasion.  The premise of The Bridesmaid is easily recognized as the stuff of romantic comedy.  Kate Preston, en route from NYC to Seattle to act as bridesmaid to her cousin and best friend, Lisa, is rerouted to Dallas thanks to a winter storm.  Her seatmate and fellow armrest-“hogger,” Joe Firretti, is on his way to Seattle to take up a new and prestigious job as techie to an international bank. 

A garment bag the size of Brazil conspires to throw them together.  Joe rents the last vehicle from Hertz and drives off … until he espies a sad and bridesmaid-pouffe-dress-laden Kate sitting on a bus stop bench, sad, disappointed and cute as heck … what’s a red-blooded guy to do when green eyes, blonde hair, and lovely tights-clad legs beckon?  He plays knight-in-shining-armor ’cause he’s just that kind of decent and our story is set: ” … she was pretty with those eyes and that hair … and in spite of the fact that she had no spatial awareness when it came to shared armrests, she seemed nice … he had to acknowledge that she was severely handicapped with that pink thing.”  The whole set-up and everything that ensues is so funny!  And so smart.

London cements her narrative with a unifying image that points to the evolution of our couple’s relationship … and leaves us in stitches.  The image is that of, as Joe calls it, the “pink raft,” the billowing garment bag that Kate drags through planes, trains, and automobiles as she and Joe make their way to each other and Seattle.  And ye shall know them by their opening sentences, whether Miss Bates reads on or not; here’s London’s: “It was bad enough that the dress was a poufy plantation ball gown number, complete with a sash and apron in a disturbing shade of peach, but it also wouldn’t fit in Kate’s suitcase.”  Miss Bates too, before full spinsterhood set in, endured such a dress, which sold her on the novella, but its humour and humanity won her over. Joe notices Kate because of the pink raft … it’s her flag, her distinguishing feature, that sets her to Joe’s amusement and bemusement, but it’s the essence of Kate that has Joe fall in love with her.  It’s no insta-love, despite the brevity of the form, it builds from shared comic hardship.  There are trials and tests and a delightful burgeoning bond.

As they journey, Kate and Joe talk, about their work and how much they love it, which Miss Bates found loverly, a hero and heroine who possess a genuine love of their calling in place of billions.  In Kate’s case, it’s romance novels; she’s an assistant editor and “loves it, loves it, loves it.”  It offers London a chance to slyly talk about the genre: ” ‘Women’s fiction,’ he repeated.  ‘Would that be fiction about women?’  ‘It’s fiction about relationships.  And love.’  Joe gave her a dubious look.  ‘You mean romance novels … what do they call them?  Bodice rippers.’ ”  Snigger.  Until, after he and Kate make love, he picks up one of her manuscripts and is totally caught up, wants to know how the hero and heroine end up, confesses he … gasp … even wants to know what their children will look like (hero wants a baby-filled epilogue, folks!).

Kate and Joe are absorbed in their attraction and sheer liking for each other.  When that leads them to the bedroom, Kate wonders what “force” brought them together.  She asks Joe, “Do you believe in fate?”  She’s trying to figure out, as we all do, if this is fate, meant-to-be destiny, another way of asking if this is meaningful.  Should I make something of this?  What prevails?  The feeling that something is right and meant-to-be, or pragmatism?  If it’s meant-to-be, then one must answer this call; or, as Kate says, “Joe Firretti, where the hell did you come from?”  This rumination, more Miss Bates than Ms London, is nevertheless resolved in their discussion around the romance novel Joe reads: ” [Joe] was engrossed in the manuscript … ‘Stop that, you vixen … I have never used the word vixen in my life … But I have to find out if she’s going to let him in her house or not.’  ‘Of course she does.’  ‘Hey!’ Joe protested … ‘Don’t tell me.  That ruins it.’  Kate laughed.  ‘If she doesn’t let him in, there’s no love story.’ ”  There has to be an act of will, a willingness to let someone in.  Kate and Joe let each other in, acknowledge, in their bodies and souls, that this matters, but their heads take longer to get there.  The practical, rational (post)modern in them cannot admit to anything but randomness; doubt seems to triumph as Joe and Kate, though they’re in love but not letting it in, admit they have to part after going to the wedding together.  Nevertheless, they don’t have to like it, “If he [Joe] believed in fate, he would be calling it a few choice names right now.” And Kate: ” … still didn’t know if she believed in fate, but if she did … she hated fate.  She wanted to kick fate’s ass.”

In Miss Bates’s estimation, there are several factors at work here.  Firstly, there’s the idea of the romance novel and its advocacy of a perspective that says, “yes, this is meaningful, let’s take a chance.”  And that is why Miss Bates remains fascinated by the romance novel as a “vindication” of a Brontëan and feminine perspective (as Miss Bates has written of before): the romance novel and Kate’s love for them “wins.”  Joe is caught up in the happy ending, in believing in it, and finally in enacting it.  How London brings that about for the reader and the genre, well, Miss Bates suggests you read the novella to find out.

What will grate?  Miss Bates would say that Kate and Joe share a conversation that’s very much men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus.  It’s stereotypical and trite in places, but their ruminations on fate and romance novels, the humour and banter and the “pink thing” win hands-down.  One more niggling point that Miss Bates agrees may be problematic for readers: the love scenes are lovely, but they’re not exactly “safe.”  Too bad, because these two are really so careful and decent and loving in every way.  To Miss Bates, these are niggling points, but to another, they may be bothersome.  And, of course, by virtue of this being a novella, the characters are not fully fleshed.

Miss Bates still quite quite liked London’s novella and finds in it “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Julia London’s The Bridemaid was released on October 1st by Sourcebooks Casablanca and is available in the usual places and format.

Miss Bates is grateful to the publisher for an e-UAC via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

Miss Bates is fascinated by the idea of the circumstances, or “fate” that bring hero and heroine together.  As she already mentioned early in this review, she loved the opening of Sarah Morgan’s The Twelve Nights of Christmas.  (Do read it.)  What are your favourite initial encounters between hero and heroine?